Video Games

Bullet Points: Dishonored

So, I’ve been playing Dishonored, the first-person stealth/action supernatural assassin game. And it’s really great. Here are some great things about it (the game is nearly entirely great) and some not-so-great things (there aren’t many). And then there are also some other things. A bunch of things, essentially.

PS: Things.

The Great Stuff

  • I feel like games that promise stealth and action wind up doing a good job with one and not so good a job with the other. But I’ve played through Dishonored twice, once focusing on stealth and once focusing on action, and both approaches are absolutely valid and enjoyable ways to play the game. Stealth, I think, is honestly more fun, but the combat, if you choose to go toe-to-toe with your enemies, is plenty satisfying.
  • The stealth… okay, it’s weird and there’s two parts to it. First, there’s not really a stealth system. Like in Deus Ex or Batman: Arkham Asylum/City, there’s a system. You stick to cover, so you know you’re properly in cover. You can move between cover by rolling or sliding or whatever, just by hitting a key. There’s an actual system to it. In Dishonored, there’s nothing like that. You just try to kind of hide and hope no one sees you. And sometimes they see you.
  • The stealth itself, the act of being stealthy, is great. There’s all sorts of places to hide: rafters, sewers, alcoves, walls, ledges, tunnels, closets, the tops of streetlamps… you can even hide in trash bins. The first thing I do when entering an area is look up and see what I can perch on, and get as high up in the level as I can.
  • Once you get good at stealth and teleporting around with the Blink spell, you sort of turn into a Victorian version of Batman. You can get a spell called Dark Vision that lets you spy through walls, like Batman’s Detective Vision. And you can drop down on dudes (lethally) or land/teleport just behind them and choke them unconscious, then Blink back up to your hiding place.

  • The environments are really lovely, the art direction is fantastic. I wish I had some screenshots, but I’m usually too engrossed in the game to be taking pictures.

  • The character design is great, too.
  • The loading time between levels is so quick. There are these little tips they give you to read while levels are loading. I have no idea what the tips say, because the levels load so fast. I even wish it wasn’t so quick, because I could maybe use those tips.
  • I was so damn stealthy in my first play-through that I didn’t realize guards could throw grenades until my second, action-oriented play-through. I had also forgotten that enemy assassins could use, like, magic powers of their own. They just never had a chance in my first run: they were dead or unconscious before they ever got a chance to do anything. That says something for the stealth in Dishonored, and why you should try playing it both ways. It’s an entirely different experience. Enemies do all sorts of different things if you give them a chance.
  • The combat, if you choose to play that way, or if your stealthiness just happens to fail leaving you no choice, is a huge amount of fun. The swordplay, which involves parrying, means you have to do some careful timing to block attacks. Some enemies have guns (more on this in a minute). If they don’t have guns, and you’re out of reach, cockily sitting on a ledge you’ve Blinked up to, they may throw things at you. This was a fun surprise on my second play-through.
  • This is maybe my favorite thing about the entire game: when an guard decides he’s going to shoot you, he will announce his intention to fire, by saying something to his comrades like “Stand clear!” or “Preparing to fire!” I realize the in-game purpose of this: it’s to warn the player that a gun is about to go off, so he can Blink away or use the Bend Time spell, avoiding the shot (or plucking the bullet out of the air while time is done bent). But the warning you hear before an enemy fires a pistol also works, I think, as a little world-building detail. Pistols are crummy, inaccurate (you can upgrade yours quite a bit, however), untrustworthy, possibly a fairly recent development in this world. If you’re a soldier, you don’t just shoot a gun off, you issue a warning to your comrades first, so they know an inaccurate, unpredictable piece of lead is going to be flying their way. Surely, this is a rule for these guards, this is something they do, owing to a history of people shooting guns and hitting their allies by mistake (which does happen sometimes in the game). Enemies with a pistol in one hand always have a sword in the other: guns are simply not the dominant weapon in this world, and I love how that comes across in the game.

  • This one guy has his own steampunk video chat system. It’s cute, because you’re there to assassinate him, and you can call him up and let him know you’re there to assassinate him before you assassinate him. If you want to be a real badass, that is.
  • There’s no hacking minigame! Hurrah. Not that hacking/lockpicking minigames are even that bad. I played through both Bioshocks, Deus Ex, and Oblivion/Skyrim, which all have minigames for hacking and lockpicking. They’re not terrible. But, it does get tiresome, playing the same minigame over and over and over. It just turns into busywork after a while. In Dishonored, you can rewire enemy security devices to work for you by using a rewire tool that you can find or buy. The only game you have to play is: can I scope the place out and discover the control box that is connected to the device I want to hack, and can I stealthily get myself into a position to do so without anyone seeing me? That’s the only game necessary. I’m glad they didn’t try to drop a little Pipe Dreams type of minigame on top of it.
  • Speaking of which, one of the pleasures of the game is having rewired the devices, to spend time getting some kills with them. Walls of Light are crackling force fields that restrict access to certain areas. Guards can walk through them, but they’ll fry you unless you rewire them. Once you have, you can pass through harmlessly, but they’ll disintegrate the guards. So, naturally, everything gets put on hold until I determine how many guards have to walk through this force field to justify the time I spent sneaking over to rewire it? The answer is: all of them. I spent like 30 minutes one night trying to get every single guard to walk through the Wall of Light.
  • If you can lure them one at a time, they’ll all pretty much get fried. However, if one guard sees another guard get fried, he will back off, run away, or throw rocks or cobblestones at the field. Which is fun to watch.
  • One guy would not walk through, so I spent a good 10 minutes trying to back him into it during an extended swordfight. He wouldn’t go through. So I shot him.
  • Also note: the Walls of Light have a power source, and the more guards you fry, the more power it uses. So, if you’re on one side of the wall, laughing at all the guards frying themselves in the field, remember that the WoL may suddenly run out of power and the guards will suddenly be surrounding/stabbing you.
  • Also also note: if you’re standing directly in the field and someone else gets fried in it, you also get fried. Found that out the hard way.
  • If you’re looking around with Dark Vision, and you see a couple guards standing stock still, staring at each other, get closer to them. They’re probably waiting for you to get within earshot so they can engage in a conversation you might want to listen in on. There’s some weird, interesting stuff going on between NPCs in this game, worth checking out. A conversation can turn funny, or, as below, turn dark.

  • The UI is surprisingly customizable. Shockingly customizable, even. You can turn just about every element (quest markers, pickup logs, health/mana meters, item glow and descriptions, etc) of the UI on or off, and in some cases, set them to contextual (for instance, if you only want to see your health/mana meters when you lose/gain health/mana). It’s pretty neat. I’d leave most everything on for your first run, but play with the settings for your next pass, and turn off the stuff you don’t want to see.
  • The powers are all pretty much fun and incredibly useful. Blink, obvs, for getting around, and Dark Vision, for seeing through walls. But there’s also Possession, which lets you drive rats and fish around, and later, people. Cluster of guards blocking your way? Just possess one, walk him into a nice private corner, let him go, and choke him out. Repeat if necessary. Devouring Swarm is just good, grisly fun. Rats will make short work of a single enemy or provide the perfect distraction for a group, or just eat whatever bodies you’ve left lying around. Wind Blast, I didn’t even use on my stealthy run, but in combat, it’s great for knocking back a crowd, and also excellent for killing swarms of rats. Bend Time, incredibly useful for a number of reasons, especially when used in conjunction with other spells or weapons.
  • Rat swarms, either summoned by you or just encountered in the game, are fun to watch as they wreak havoc:

  • Probably one of the neatest things, not evident until you’ve played through a couple times, is how the world changes based on how you’re playing. If your body count is high, if you’re just killing everyone you encounter, the game will note this and change in later levels, sometimes subtly, sometimes pretty obviously.
  • I love how fast the guards run. I’m used to games like, I don’t know, Half-Life 2, where if an enemy soldier runs after you, he’s not really moving very fast. Essentially, he’s just sort of jogging. Guards in Dishonored, when they run, they run. Great big huge fast long loping strides. They haul ass when they need to. It’s surprising and fun.

The Not So Great Stuff

  • Plant monsters. Why are there plant monsters? About halfway through the game, there are suddenly plant monsters. They feel out of place with the world, which had previously been just people, rats, hounds, and technological traps. And, fine, you want plant monsters in your game, I’m not one to say otherwise. Thing is, the plant monsters are just no fun to fight. They just sit there and spit at you if you get to close. Grenades are good on them, and guns, if you’re close, and you can possess them, which kills them when you leave their stupid plant-bodies. But I’m sure no one has killed a bunch of plant monsters and thought, Wow, that was such a satisfying plant monster fight! I want to reload the game and do it again!
  • Okay, one time I chucked a whale-oil canister from the top of a tall building and it landed smack dab in the middle of a bunch of plant monsters and killed them all, and that was satisfying, but only because it meant I was done dealing with plant monsters for a while. And I did reload the game to do it again because I promptly fell off the roof and died. But that doesn’t count.
  • This is probably on me, but the Dark Vision spell is so freakin’ useful that I more or less keep it on the entire game. You can see through walls, spy on enemies, spot useful items and figure out where technology is wired. This is all great, but like Batman’s Detective Mode, it’s tempting to just always be using it, so I tend to always use it, meaning I’m looking at this gorgeous game through a sepia tone filter, which is a shame, because the game is beautiful and should be looked upon with mortal eyes. I recommend popping it on, taking a quick look around, and popping it off.
  • There’s a dude, without giving away much, who is important to you and the building of your supernatural arsenal, and he’s really lame and boring. He’s the plant monster of characters: he feels entirely out of place in the game and I just dread seeing him.

The Mixed Bag Stuff

  • The dialogue and voice-acting. Some of it is top notch, some of it is pretty bad. I spent a lot of time eavesdropping, and there are some great conversations to overhear, and some terrible ones. Example: occasionally, you will encounter a guard who is muttering to himself. And that is meant literally: he is literally muttering weird fake words and sounds. He might as well be saying “Mutter mutter mutter. Mutter! Mutter mutter.” Usually, however, listening in on conversations is fun and often useful: it can fill you in on some story details, or point you to hidden locations to check out.
  • As far as the overall story and characters, I don’t have a lot to say, because there’s not a lot to say, because there’s not much of a story, and what there is isn’t very compelling. I never felt much interest in any of the characters, even Corvo. That said, there are tons of extra story details, in the form of books, letters, journals, and conversations you can listen in on, that provide a fascinating picture of the world and the events you’re involved in.

The Non-Lethal Approach

  • Some notes on playing non-lethally, that is, trying to get through the entire game without killing anyone, even your main assassination targets (there are non-lethal options to take out all of your targets, and they’re all pretty horrific in their own way).
  • I haven’t tried a complete no-kill approach. My first pass was pretty non-lethal. I opted for drugging/choking out guards, simply because it’s quieter, less messy, and more predictable. You choke a guy, he passes out. Dart him, he passes out. Shoot him? Maybe he dies, maybe not. If he doesn’t, you’re in for a fight with him and anyone else who might be around. Still, when my stealth failed, I did wind up occasionally killing people.
  • One thing about a non-lethal approach: there really aren’t a lot of different tools to use. You can choke dudes unconscious, or sleep-dart them, but that’s the only way to take people out without killing them.
  • Well, that’s not exactly true: you can sneak past them altogether. Which is probably your best option for non-lethal: just don’t even try to take anyone down, because even if you safely knock someone out, you’ve got an unconscious body to deal with, which is problematic. Sometimes, there just aren’t enough tall bookshelves to hide bodies on:

  • See, subduing an enemy is only half of it. That’s the easy half. The other half is, to make sure they don’t die after they’re unconscious. It’s damn tricky. For instance:
  • I shot a sleep dart into a guy, and he toppled off a roof, landed on his head, and died.
  • I choked a dude out, tried to lay him on top of a tall bookcase, he slipped off, and died. Another guy, I tried placing him at the top of some stairs and he tumbled down, dead.
  • One guy spotted me on a balcony, and started swinging his sword. I just held up my sword to block him — just block him — and he staggered back, off balance, and went flying off the balcony and into the water below. Dead.
  • I had three guys stowed under a staircase, unconscious. A swarm of rats ran over and messily ate them: obviously, they died (and rats will eat unconscious dudes — I’ve heard people say they won’t, but they do, trust me).
  • I darted a dude on a beach, carried him away, and laid him down. I immediately noticed he was laying down in about three inches of water, I scooped him back up, but he was already dead, presumably of drowning.
  • I gave a maid a heart attack. I have no idea how. I’d cleared out a building of guards and was walking around. The maid saw me and was sort of defensively crouching. I simply walked over to her to see if she had a key that I could lift off her. I had NO INTENTION OF HARMING HER. I did NOTHING VIOLENT. But as I walked away, she let out a gasp and flopped over. Dead. I don’t know what could have happened. Did I bump into her as I walked, and this somehow killed her? Did she just have a Victorian stroke? No idea. But it was weird.
  • Unconscious dudes snore. Snoring can attract curious guards. Curious guards get alarmed. Alarmed guards are harder to quietly deal with. If you’re going non-lethal, for reals, just bypass as many people as you can.

Some Spoiler-Free Words About “Looper”

“I don’t want to talk about time travel.” — Joe (Bruce Willis), in the film Looper

“I kinda do.” — Me, in the audience of the film Looper

(Note: There will be no spoilers here, the only real information I’ll be talking about are things evident in the movie trailers.)

There were two things I knew about Looper before I saw it. Both of those things were revealed in the trailer for the film, and both of them worried me, because both of them seemed pretty stupid. I’ll get to both of those things in a minute. First, some praise!

Looper is a GOOD MOVIE. Go see it. It’s interesting, entertaining, funny, exciting, violent, cool, thought-provoking, and best of all, completely surprising, and you should definitely go and see it, despite all the paragraphs of whining you’re about to endure. Or, don’t endure them! You don’t really need to keep reading, because if you just go and see Looper, you’ll probably enjoy it. I don’t want to say much else about it, other than the two things I will go on to say, because it’s best to go in knowing as little as possible.

Now, the two things I knew about Looper before seeing it. The first thing that worried me was the general premise: in the future, the mob controls time travel, and uses it to send people back in time to be killed by hitmen. Before I saw the movie, this just seemed patently absurd. And, having seen the movie, it is still patently absurd.

Look, I can see the mob controlling, say, gambling, prostitution, drugs, weapons, maybe even politicians. Maybe even secretly controlling some sort of science, like a pharmaceutical lab or maybe some kind of high-tech gadget firm or something. But time travel? Which would be the biggest and most important scientific discovery ever? That seems about as plausible as the mob controlling space travel. I just can’t envision a future where a bunch of mafioso types walk into NASA and say, “Yeah, you gotta nice space program here, but we’re gonna be making some changes, capice? Dis is Big Vinnie. From now on, you wanna go to da moon, you wanna go into space, you wanna, I dunno, do da thing where you send a rocket to look at space rocks on Mars, badda bing, badda boom… you talk to Big Vinnie foist.” *straightens tie, walks out*

You do get a little explanation of how it works, and why the mob uses it the way it does, but the explanation is brief and, from a logical standpoint, pretty unsatisfying. But, that’s kind of okay.  Sometimes, in science-fiction movies, the fiction is more thought-out than the science, like in Back to the Future, where the focus is on the journey of Marty and his parents, and the science is just a magic car and a photograph that people disappear from a bit at a time. We accept that, or at least it doesn’t bother us too much at the time because we’re enjoying the story (though it’s definitely fun to pick it apart later). Other sci-fi films focus on the science, such as in the time travel film Primer. In Primer, the science was definitely nailed down, but the fiction, in my opinion, was crap (and here fiction includes things like storytelling and acting and making the audience give a shit about anyone on the screen).

I always want both sides of the equation to have equal heft. I want some good science, and I want some good story, and while it’s pretty rare to get both, films can work just fine with just one. Overall, I don’t think Primer is a good film but the makers really did an amazing job of logically portraying time travel, probably the best anyone has done to date, and that part of the film really works. Meanwhile, the time travel in Back to the Future is silly garbage, but the film is fun as hell and has a fantastic script.

Looper basically falls into the Back to the Future camp. The science of their time-travel is redonk, and doesn’t really try to be anything else. The quote at the top of this entry, said by Bruce Willis to his younger self, is more or less the attitude of the film. Another character says roughly the same thing, and these comments are really directed at us, the audience. The mob controls time travel, they send people back 30 years to get whacked, don’t worry about the reasons or how it works because it doesn’t, really, and even if we sort of wish it did, the story Looper tells is entertaining enough without it.

Now. The second thing from the trailer that concerned me: Joseph Gordon-Levitt is covered with facial prosthetics (see disturbing image above) to make him look like a young version of Bruce Willis, since they play the same character at different ages. Even in just a few seconds of trailer footage, I found this kind of distracting.

In the two-hour movie, I found it immensely distracting. The contact lenses, the eyeliner, whatever the hell is going on with his stupid fake eyebrows, the curved nose they stuck on him, the giant oil painting of a bottom lip they glued to his real bottom lip… all of these things just kept me staring at parts of his face for the entire movie through squinted eyes thinking, jeez, I am so distracted right now. Is that a lip or a throw-rug? EYEBROWS! EYEBROWS! Lip. Liiiiiip. Contacts. LIP! Nose. Fake nose. Eyebrows eyebrows LIIIIIIIIP.

But it’s not JUST the make-up. It’s also the constant facial contortion he’s undergoing, rigidly holding a lemon face to approximate Bruce Willis’ sour mug, and the raspy muttering Bruce Willis voice impression, and the attempt at the famous Bruce Willis smirk, and the worst part of ALL OF THESE DISTRACTING DISTRACTIONS that he STILL DOESN’T FUCKING LOOK OR SOUND ANYTHING LIKE BRUCE WILLIS.

THUSLY, there is NO POINT. We would have easily accepted the idea that they were the same person at different ages if the film just told us that. We may have thought initially, well, they don’t really look anything alike, but we wouldn’t be obsessed with it for the entire movie. (LIP. LIIIIIIIP.) We would probably just accept it. Suspending disbelief isn’t always easy, but it’s especially hard when you’re staring at an actor who you like and who you are familiar with while he does a shitty Bruce Willis impression for two hours with a face covered in plastic noses and fake eyebrows and lip-murals. AND, if you insist on covering JGL with weird, distracting make-up, why not have him play dual roles, so the young JGL is just JGL, and the old JGL is JGL covered with old-person make-up? At least that way, while one JGL is covered in stupid, unconvincing make-up, you still have one that isn’t.

Anyway. Those were my two concerns going in, and they remain my two concerns coming out, but they are both ultimately overshadowed greatly by the quality of everything else. There’s a great story to Looper, and the film has plenty of excitement, several WTF moments, some great character development, and if you can let the science go, and do your best to forget JGL is wearing a Bruce Willis mask that doesn’t look anything like Bruce Willis, I think there’s a lot to enjoy. Go see it!